Audit grades schools' literacy programs

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2010

Several in the Juneau School District administration and the school board say they are unhappy with the "cursory" data analysis in a recent audit of the district's elementary school literacy efforts. Even so, they say it's a good starting place for reaching their goal of 100 percent reading proficiency among students.

Currently, state test results indicate one out of five students are reading below the state's proficiency standards, which are already lower than national standards. District administrators say they want to meet the higher standard.

For a long time, there has been "a predictable set of students" who are not successful readers, said Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich at a meeting Tuesday.

"What has to guide what we do isn't 'what do we want to do,' but what will it take for all of our children to learn to read?" he said. "Their level of literacy is something they will live with for the rest of their lives."

School Board President Mark Choate said he was hoping the audit would point to which of the many teaching models used in the district's classrooms is most effective.

"I don't think it gave me much feedback into what we need to do to close the achievement gap," he said. "My hope was when we got an audit, it would have enough teeth in it saying 'this works. This seems to have the best result.'"

Impoverished kids who end up couch surfing or moving and switching schools especially suffer at the lack of a coordinated district-wide approach, Choate said.

Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling said auditors weren't asked to recommend a particular model, and that a lack of comparable data between schools is what led to what she called a "cursory" data analysis.

The findings

Auditors observed 42 randomly selected teachers across six elementary schools: six teachers at Auke Bay Elementary, seven at Gastineau Elementary, six at Glacier Valley Elementary, six at Harborview Elementary, nine at Mendenhall River Community School and six at Riverbend Elementary. They then assessed those classrooms in 10 categories.

It found that schools "vary considerably" in the implementation of "best practices" of literacy.

The category in which Juneau's classrooms fared most poorly was "providing culturally responsive instruction," which 64 percent of classrooms scored "little" on, 31 percent scored "some," and 5 percent scored "strong."

This, said the auditors, is not surprising, as culturally responsive curriculum is "cutting edge."

Culturally responsive curriculum, according to an article written by one of the report's authors, "aims at school success for students of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, acknowledging that a disproportionate number of these students typically experience failure in school."

Another category that could use some work is "meeting individual needs," in which 48 percent of classrooms scored "little."

Categories in which district classrooms overall fared better were "use of effective classroom management techniques" - 67 percent scored "strong" and 26 percent scored "some" - and "providing a motivating classroom atmosphere," in which 69 percent of classrooms scored "strong," 21 percent "some" and 10 percent "little."

Harborview had the best showing of all the schools in those observations, with 100 percent of the classes getting strong ratings on the majority of the categories. Mendenhall River and Riverbend scored the weakest, with less than two-thirds of classrooms receiving "strong" ratings on all of the categories.

Overall, Gastineau also did well, but with more variability in instruction; Auke Bay showed variability in instruction and curriculum documents.

The audit also says that Riverbend, Glacier Valley and Mendenhall River showed "considerable variability in classroom use of high quality instruction and high quality curriculum documents."

At the meeting, Scandling said all schools had strong points.

The auditors also got feedback from teachers, parents, and school and district leaders. The report said that principals and literacy leaders give high priority to literacy improvement efforts in their schools, that teachers said they need more time for cross-grade communication in order to build consistency school-wide, and parents wanted improved communication between home and school.

Patty Newman, who for seven years has been principal at Mendenhall River and is now the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the school district - a newly created position as part of the district's new strategic plan - said the audit "gives us many good places to start."

"This is definitely a starting place," she said. "Thank you for having the literacy audit. It's provided us with a great deal of information."

As far as whether or not schools will need to change the model they use, Gelbrich said "If that concerns you, the best way... is to have kids who are reading better than anywhere else. We aren't going to intervene at a school where the trend is on the right track. We're not going to mess with success."

"The audit has marginal help in it, but there is help in it," he said. "We have some hard conversations ahead."

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at

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